Thursday, August 23, 2012

Asbury: "KIRKSVILLE: The True Story of Urban Warfare in America's Heartland"

[Kirksville: The True Story of Urban Warfare in America's Heartland by D. Craig Asbury (Author: Kirksville Battle Publishing, 2012). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations. 284 pp. ISBN: n/a  $17.95]

The expulsion of regular Confederate forces from Missouri by the early months of 1862 left thousands of willing bodies trapped behind enemy lines. To tap this resource, uniformed and commissioned Confederate recruiting officers were sent to points all across the state that year, with high hopes of returning to Arkansas at the head of large hosts. One of these officers was Colonel Joseph C. Porter, who would operate in his native NE Missouri.  His efforts resulted in great success, amassing over 2,000 men in a short period of time. However, the most pressing problem was getting such an unwieldy mass of often unarmed recruits across the Missouri River, which, along with the state's Union controlled railroads, comprised a powerful barrier to such movements. While Porter was able to buy time with several successful ambushes of his federal pursuers, he could not cross the river, and, forced back north, his little army was crushed at Kirksville, the only set-piece battle of his mini-campaign. Thwarted again, the force was largely disbanded.

In the literature, the events of the great 1862 Missouri recruiting drive are summarized in excellent fashion in Michael Banasik's Embattled Arkansas (1996).  Participant Joseph A. Mudd more specifically explores Porter's role in it in his memoir With Porter in North Missouri: A Chapter in the History of the War Between the States (1909). However, none of these publications describe the Battle of Kirksville at a level of detail approaching that of D. Craig Asbury's newly released Kirksville: The True Story of Urban Warfare in America's Heartland.

In Kirksville, Asbury is able to describe in minute fashion, the preparations of both the Union and Confederate commanders and the conduct of the battle itself. Opposed by key subordinates Cyrus Franklin and Frisby McCullough, who wanted to post their men together in rough terrain west of town, Porter selected an urban battlescape, his men scattered in fields and buildings in and around town in hope of replicating the success of his earlier ambush tactics. As a compromise, Franklin and McCullogh's men would be posted behind a fence bordering the western edge of town.  The reactions of Kirksville civilians to the approaching battle also form a significant part of Asbury's narrative.

In his step-by-step analysis and description of the course of the fighting, the author hones in on the keys to Union victory. The success of Porter's plan of drawing McNeil's command into a deadly crossfire in the streets of Kirksville hinged on fire discipline, a difficult task even for experienced volunteers.  To their commander's dismay, the men fired on a small scouting force, exposing Porter's carefully masked positions and ruining any chance of surprise.  On the other side, Colonel John McNeil's mounted force of mostly Missouri State Militia (augmented by regular Missouri and Iowa cavalry detachments) was able to exploit advantages in artillery (Porter had none), small arms, and training to defeat a superior force in detail. 

Kirksville also follows the action beyond the titular clash. Though Porter suffered heavy losses at Kirksville, he was able to cross the Chariton River to temporary safety.  On the run west of the river, he was nevertheless able to set up ambushes at Painter's Creek and Seeford. Even so, converging federal commands gradually forced Porter to break up and scatter his command. Asbury additionally addresses at some length the controversial events surrounding the killing of prisoners, including the shooting of Frisby McCullough and the mass execution of Kirksville prisoners by McNeil's men for parole violations.

An aspect of the book's presentation that becomes immediately apparent to many readers is the lack of scholarly trappings. There are no notes, bibliography, or index. Keeping tabs on this project from afar, I know Asbury's performed a great deal of research on the subject, which makes it a shame the decision was made to leave the narrative undocumented. The sheer number of military and civilian perspectives discovered for this highly obscure battle indicate an intensive source material search was performed. The more casual reader doesn't care about this, but others, especially those interested in delving into their own research, would love to know the identity and location of these sources. Source notes would also have lended more authority to the areas where Asbury's research and writing overturn conventional historical wisdom (such as it is). A prime example is the modern plaque for Painter's Creek that presents it as an essentially bloodless fight. Like many self-published works of local history, the text also badly needs the services of a professional proofreader.

To conclude with a return to the more positive aspects of Kirksville, the maps, especially the smaller scale ones, are excellent and plentiful. The sequence of drawings depicting each stage of the Kirksville fight convey all the tactical movements and terrain information today's readers come to expect from battle histories. Unsurprisingly, the positions of the Union units are known with more precision. Overall, I commend Craig Asbury for tackling this subject, giving Civil War Missouri readers by far the best account of the Battle of Kirksville. The book's flaws can in no way be dismissed (and I sincerely wish they can be addressed in a future edition), but, even so, I recommend the book to anyone interested in this nearly forgotten Missouri campaign and battle.

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